The “Early Festival:” July 10-17
The Gion Festival is divided in two parts: the larger saki matsuri (“early festival,: from July 10-17) and smaller-scale ato matsuri (“later festival” from July 18-24). A third, related but separate part relates more to the deities at Yasaka Jinja shrine; their mikoshi are mentioned below.
The saki matsuri and ato matsuri comprised the original format of the Gion Festival, but traffic and tourism concerns caused them to be amalgamated into one event (July 10-17) in the 1960s. Ironically, the enormous crowds attending the Gion Festival and concomitant logistical challenges were part of the rationale to separate it again. It returned to its original format in 2014, to the delight of traditionalists who continue to honor the festival’s spiritual meaning.
Why two parts? The Gion Festival is essentially an enormous, multi-faceted purification ritual.
Deities are transported from the Yasaka Shrine in the Gion neighborhood (at the east end of Shijo-dori street) to downtown Kyoto on the night of July 17, to bless the city and its residents. The saki matsuri could be thought of as a way for downtown Kyotoites to prepare and bid the deities welcome. The ato matsuri‘s role is similar, in reverse.
Floats are constructed and the display areas are organized beginning from July 10th: generally the largest floats (mostly hoko and the large yama on Shinmachi-dori street) start construction earlier as they are more complex. Each float’s chōnai community decides its schedule on its own.
Everything is on display to the public on July 14, 15 and 16, from about 9am until around 10pm.
See the links in the Saki Matsuri drop-down menu at right for more information on the various yamaboko floats.
The procession of floats takes place on July 17. The decorated floats begin lining up along Shijo-dori at 9am, move east and then head north on Kawaramachi-dori. They journey to Oike-dori, turn left and head west to Shinmachi-dori, where the procession winds down around noon.
Meanwhile, local residents and companies share the spirit by displaying their own private treasures, in a subfestival called the byōbu matsuri or “folding screen festival.”